Guest opinion: Grade separation is a golden opportunity for Menlo Park | December 20, 2017 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

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Viewpoint - December 20, 2017

Guest opinion: Grade separation is a golden opportunity for Menlo Park

by Dana Hendrickson

Imagine yourself in an awful predicament when an unavoidable future event will have a large negative impact on you and many others unless you can identify a way to greatly minimize its consequences, but the most promising solutions also create big new problems. Plus, you doubt there is time to carefully evaluate additional options. Feel anxious, overwhelmed, and frustrated? The Menlo Park City Council is now in this unenviable position as it attempts to prepare our city for future increases in vehicle traffic, more frequent Caltrain trains, and high-speed rail.

Together these changes threaten to severely disrupt future Menlo Park traffic unless some existing crossings are replaced with grade separations. The council has studied two alternative plans for grade separations and is inclined to select the least objectionable one. I recommend the council instead evaluate a fully elevated and open rail structure (FEORS) for at least the section of track that runs downtown from Oak Grove to Ravenswood. The tracks on either side could be raised with any combination of this structure and simple berms. The superior value of this alternative becomes clear when one views grade separation as an extraordinary opportunity for our city — rather than a dreaded problem.

Like other Peninsula cities, Menlo Park is now developing a grade separation strategy for its major east-west vehicle corridors. Council members do not like the two alternatives the city has studied. One would lower Ravenswood and keep the tracks roughly at current grade (neither Oak Grove nor Glenwood would have grade separations). This likely would produce long-term traffic circulation problems on El Camino, Oak Grove, Glenwood and possibly Ravenswood.

The other requires Ravenswood, Oak Grove and Glenwood be lowered and tracks raised on an unattractive berm that is 10 feet high between Oak Grove and Ravenswood. This solid barrier would further physically divide Menlo Park neighborhoods. Plus, the concurrent construction of three new grade separations would severely disrupt east-west and El Camino traffic for at least three years. The council feels pressured to select one of these alternatives soon, thinking delays might jeopardize future government support if other cities were to apply for funding before Menlo Park.

So what should our council do? First, take a deep breath. Our situation is not so bad. There is plenty of time to evaluate additional solutions, and the potential reward is one that becomes a source of civic pride rather than disdain.

Next, view the grade separation challenge as a wonderful opportunity to transform the area bounded by El Camino, Alma, Ravenswood and Oak Grove into a community-enriching commercial district, one that energizes our downtown. This central area is already changing rapidly. The BBC at 555 Santa Cruz Ave. was renovated in 2015. A three-story office building will be completed at 1020-1026 Alma in 2018, and Station 1300 will open in 2019. Also, a builder has proposed replacing existing buildings at 1125 Merrill St., and 506 and 556 Santa Cruz Ave, with a multi-use development.

These private investments should be complemented by a civic project that integrates them with a central pedestrian and bike-friendly public space that seamlessly connects both sides of the tracks. This project could include a large plaza, attractive landscaping, and the existing train station. A fully elevated and open rail structure between Oak Grove and Ravenswood would make this possible. And perhaps, the existing Caltrain parking could be relocated underground to create even more public space. (Note: More details are available at the Re-Imagine Menlo Park website at tinyurl.com/MPGradeSep17.)

I encourage the Menlo Park City Council to evaluate the FEORS alternative. It is technically feasible; construction will be much less disruptive and possibly less costly than lowering three streets, and the city has sufficient time to select the best possible solution.

In the meantime, Menlo Park can monitor Palo Alto's pursuit of an extremely costly underground rail solution and consider this popular alternative if Palo Alto is successful.

Menlo Park resident Dana Hendrickson is an active community volunteer, founder of the disabled veteran support nonprofit Rebuild Hope, and editor of Re-Imagine Menlo Park.

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Dana Hendrickson
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Dec 19, 2017 at 1:07 pm

Anyone who wishes to discuss grade separation and this opinion can contact me directly at danahendrickson2009@gmail.com.


1 person likes this
Posted by Dana Hendrickson
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Dec 21, 2017 at 10:56 am

A map of the proposed central plaza and fully elevated open rail is displayed at Web Link


Like this comment
Posted by Jym Clendenin
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 5, 2018 at 9:25 am

The FEORS approach is very inviting: 1) less disruption during construction; and 2) new space underneath is created. With proper construction, noise should be no worse than for a berm, and the visual impact is much better. Questions: 1) can FEORS handle the high-speed train should it come; and 2) what is the cost differential if any?

Grade separation for both Ravenswood and Oak Grove is essential. One could also envision those two streets becoming one-way between Middlefield and El Camino.


1 person likes this
Posted by Dana Hendrickson
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 19, 2018 at 5:05 pm

Jim: I just read your comment so I will try to answer your questions.

1. Yes, high speed rail should run on the same tracks and electrification infrastructure installed on a FEORS.

2. A group of residents who are investigating this alternative has asked the City Council to study it and estimate constructions costs. The hybrid separation alternative requires lowering three streets, an expensive task as all underground utilities must be relocated. The FEORS requires raising the rail onto columns at least on the section between Ravenswood and Glenwood. The estimated cost of the hybrid is $310M to $390M so even if a FORS cost 5% more the additional $15M to $20M is not a big deal. We should pursue the best outcome for Menlo Park as new will live with it for a long time.

And your idea about modifying traffic patterns warrants careful study.


2 people like this
Posted by Mike Forster
a resident of another community
on Jan 19, 2018 at 8:56 pm

The FEORS approach could even cost less than the hybrid approach. The tracks would be raised partway for the hybrid approach; raising them fully for the FEORS approach should be only an incremental additional cost. But that step completely avoids the complexity and cost of any roadway lowering.

Avoiding lowering the roadways also avoids the ongoing and permanent problem of water pumps operation and maintenance and potential flooding of the roadways. The Oregon Expressway underpass frequently floods, either because the rain is too much for the pumps to handle, or the pumps fail as they did earlier this month due to a power outage. Menlo Park should not introduce this problem where the problem does not currently exist.

Noise should not be a significant factor. Nearly all of the current train noise comes from the diesel engine, as one can verify by standing next to the tracks as a train passes by. Once electrification is complete, the diesel noise will disappear, and the train could be nearly as quiet as electric or hybrid cars (except for track and wind noise).


1 person likes this
Posted by henry fox
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jan 20, 2018 at 9:51 am

henry fox is a registered user.

According to the Staff report, we will have 4 to 5 years of construction SIMULTANEOUSLY at all 3 track crossings in Menlo Park.

Although staff will handle this expeditiously, construction will cause delays at all 3 crossings and on ECR.

Can Menlo Park residents and businesses handle this for 4 years? With a fully elevated track, the roadways won't be affected during construction.


Like this comment
Posted by Dana Hendrickson
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 22, 2018 at 12:36 pm

Henry: The staff report refers to Grade Separation Alternative C which has Ravenswood. Oak Grove and Glenwood Avenues lowered so vehicles could travel - after construction - thru an underpass below rails raised on a 10-foot high berm. The staff believes construction at all separations would be done "concurrently" to reduce project cost. You are right: this would disrupt local traffic for a long time.

However, as mentioned in my prior comment, there is another alternative that would NOT require the streets to be lowered and this one is currently being studied by a team of residents who has proposed that the City Council formally evaluate it. This would be much LESS disruptive.


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